On March 26, 1790, President George Washington signed the Naturalization Act into law. It was the first time that the word “alien” ever appeared in the annals of our country’s legal foundation.
“Any alien, being a free white person, who shall have resided under the limits and the jurisdiction of the United States for the term of two years, may be admitted to become a citizen thereof,” reads the act, noting that such an alien needs to show that “he is a person of good character.”
Over the course of nearly 230 years, that policy has morphed into an unrecognizable behemoth — and so has the debate surrounding the use of the phrase “alien.” Immigrating into the U.S. is one of the most challenging legal hurdles a person can face, and it’s been that way for decades. Meanwhile, the phenomenon of immigration has become among the most divisive social, political and economic debates in American life. President Donald Trump, for one, has steadily stoked the flames since his 2016 campaign, in which he described immigration from Mexico as bringing in “bad people” like “rapists” and “criminals.” Since then, he’s continued to use the phrase “illegal alien” with abandon.
No surprise, then, that those who are standing in Trump’s corner have doubled down on their own usage of “illegal alien.” Like prejudiced moths all flying toward an orange light, conservative talking heads like Charlie Kirk, Michelle Malkin and the Conservative Review‘s Daniel Horowitz love to parrot the phrase in tweets, posts and podcasts, hammering home the point that “illegal aliens” aren’t just, well, here illegally — they’re also up to no good while they’re here. It’s in clear view on the home page of FAIR, or the Federation of American Immigration Reform, which was founded by a white supremacist and is today labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Search social media platforms for the phrase, and you’ll find a panoply of people with right-wing opinions mentioning “illegal alien” like they’re selling a lunch special.
On the other side are progressive voices that have repeatedly pointed to the label as a symbol of America’s casual callousness and taken measures to discourage and even ban the phrasing outright. In 2010, a group called the Applied Research Center launched a campaign dubbed “Drop the I-Word,” observing that “racially derogatory and dehumanizing language used in the media and political discourse has paved the way for a rise in hate crimes against immigrants.”
In 2015, California became the first state in the country to ban the usage of “alien” from its books, with lawmakers noting the move, while symbolic, is a necessary show of respect and acceptance. More recently, Congressman Joaquin Castro in July announced a federal bill to strike “illegal” and “alien” as terms for undocumented immigrants from the federal books, too. The National Review might argue that the phrase isn’t a racist slur, sure. But those who believe that the repetition of the phrase legitimizes xenophobia toward immigrants are fighting to stop it.
To understand how we got here, though, we must pause the present and go back to the 1790s for a series of critical events in the history of “illegal alien.”
1) After Washington signed the Naturalization Act, “alien” became the legal term for anyone in the U.S. who was not a citizen, without a distinction between legal versus illegal, documented versus not. But that neutrality began to dissipate as American politicians watched France burn amid a literal revolution. The U.S. owed France money yet refused to pay once the monarchy died; it also began trading with Britain, which enraged the new French leaders. Fearing retaliation from foreign powers, President John Adams (inaugurated spring of 1797) and loyal Federalist pols passed the four-part Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798.
Under the Alien Friends Act, any alien suspected of being “dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States” could be imprisoned or deported. Under the Alien Enemies Act, any male citizen of a “hostile nation” could also be imprisoned or deported. The party opposite the Federalists, the Thomas Jefferson-led Democratic Republicans, denounced the acts loudly — and broader criticism of Adam’s overreach led to him losing to Jefferson in the presidential election of 1800.
2) In 1882, the U.S. government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, banning all immigration of Chinese people — a racist overreaction to an influx of Chinese workers who helped build the country. In a stunning show of cruelty, the act made every Chinese immigrant who was already living in America permanent aliens, stripping any opportunity to become naturalized citizens. In fact, those who left America for any reason after the act’s passage had little to no chance of reuniting with wives and children. (This is eerily mirrored by the family separations happening with Latino immigrants in the U.S. today.)
3) World War I was bad news for the U.S., and the backdrop of the war and consequent recession fostered increasing anti-immigrant views. For the first time, in 1924, the federal government instituted a race-based quota, making it illegal for any ethnic population to surpass the number of people counted in 1890 — a bit of sneaky arithmetic that made the law greatly favor white-passing immigrants from Europe (excluding Jews, Italians, Greeks and a variety of other groups). This was a follow-up to previous laws that had restricted immigration from a variety of Asian nations, and motivated in part by the Red Scare.
Four decades later, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act, abolishing the quota based on race but also greatly restricting immigration from the Western Hemisphere. This directly impacted people migrating out of Central and South America, and the second half of the 20th century would prove defining for changing American demographics. Rampant violence in their home countries (often influenced by U.S. foreign policy), plus the demand for cheap labor from U.S. companies, led droves of Latin Americans to America in the 1970s and 1980s.
4) Unsurprisingly, this change brought a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment to the mainstream. Researcher Edwin Ackerman noted in his 2011 paper that the usage of the phrase “illegal alien” skyrocketed at this time. Union leaders saw undocumented laborers as low-wage strike-breakers. Groups representing minorities, meanwhile, rushed to make a distinction between “legal” immigrants and “illegal” aliens, trying to fall on the right side of the discourse, Ackerman writes. His research shows that by 1994, a staggering 90 percent of newspaper articles on immigration used the phrase “illegal alien” as a main descriptor.
5) President Bill Clinton, May 1995: “Every day, illegal aliens show up in court who are charged. Some are guilty and surely some are innocent. Some go to jail and some don’t. But they’re all illegal aliens. And whether they’re innocent or guilty of the crimes they were charged with in court, they’re still here illegally, and they should be sent out of the country.”
The very next year, Clinton went on to sign a law that would again reshape immigration in a massive way. The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 stripped significant amounts of due process from application and deportation processes, while stiffening requirements for asylum seekers in prohibitive ways as well. It also defined for the first time a concept of “criminal alienhood,” which the Center for Migration Studies argues has “slowly, but purposefully conflated criminality and lack of immigration status.”
7) In 2013, the Associated Press banned “illegal alien” and “illegal immigrant” from its influential journalism style guide. Instead, it’s taken the approach of describing the circumstances of migrant arrivals on a largely case-by-case basis. It also doesn’t use the term popularized by progressives, “undocumented,” which the AP claimed wasn’t accurate enough because many so-called “illegal” migrants still have a number of forms of documentation.
8) Supreme Court Justice Elena Sotomayor tells a room of Yale Law School kids in 2014 why she chooses to say “undocumented immigrant” rather than “illegal alien”: “To call them illegal aliens seemed and does seem insulting to me.”
That last bit rings true to Shahid Haque, an immigration lawyer in Montana who a decade ago published a blog post arguing that “illegal alien” is a dehumanizing phrase. The key shift from the origin of the word “alien” is that in 2019, it’s used as a shorthand to categorize black and brown immigrants. “The average American conjures a common image: a Mexican person. It’s a phrase that makes people feel better than another group, and makes it easy to blame ‘illegals’ as the source of problems,” Haque tells me. “The term ‘alien’ is defined in our laws, sure. But the phrase ‘illegal alien’ makes no sense. There’s no reference in the law to that. You wouldn’t call someone an illegal citizen if they commit a robbery. You’re not an illegal driver if you have a DUI.”
Over the course of his 11-year career, Haque has watched as immigration rules made it harder and harder for people to navigate the system. He argues that an immigrant can be unauthorized for a million different reasons, not merely because they “cheated the system” or “cut the line” as critics have claimed. “The act of entering the country illegally is a misdemeanor. Once you’re in, that’s not a crime you can be arrested over. Your existence isn’t criminal — you just committed an illegal act. And if, like many, you’ve overstayed a visa, well, you’ve not committed any crime at all,” he says. “That’s a civil infraction.”
He also points to Trump as a cheerleader for the framing of people as “illegal aliens,” and notes that more and more people seem to be making a political choice to stick with using “illegal alien” instead of any other term. And there is undeniably a race and class element to this framing — as a 2018 study found, people are prone to use stereotypes in deciding who they call an illegal alien. “We find that national origin, social class and criminal background powerfully shape perceptions of illegality. These findings reveal a new source of ethnic-based inequalities — ‘social illegality’ — that may potentially increase law enforcement scrutiny and influence the decisions of hiring managers, landlords, teachers and other members of the public,” concluded researchers René Flores and Ariela Schachter.
What comes next? Haque is more or less holding his breath until Trump leaves office, as the administration has made a mess while changing a variety of immigration rules and regulations. This has turned immigration courts and the oversight of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agency into a clogged artery where people are floating in limbo, unable to appeal decisions and facing judges who have been given orders to hear fewer cases, Haque says, mirroring numerous claims from immigration attorneys and activists. He argues the system, now hyper-jammed, is fueling an increase in immigrants “without status” in the U.S., and that reformed policy should allow more people who don’t have immediate family already here. In the meantime, major U.S. corporations are benefiting wildly from a secondary labor market that’s easily disposable and willing to work for lower wages.
“People say that the immigration system is broken, but really, it’s functioning as designed. The problem is that it’s hurting a lot of people, and really ourselves as a nation. The system isn’t designed to let enough legal immigration for the right people, so what’s happening is there are no opportunities for large categories of people,” he says. “Before Trump, I don’t think anyone credible believed we could do an enforcement-only strategy, but somehow, that’s where we are now. And Democrats spending their time talking about only helping the most needy people, rather than pushing to make the entire system more fair.”
Perhaps these points are a bit moot — Haque doesn’t expect reform to happen anytime soon, let alone people to stop using the phrase “illegal alien.” It still stands as the tip of the iceberg for a social, economic and moral issue larger than George Washington could’ve ever imagined.